This past weekend, drummer Steve Foley passed away at the age of 49. Foley, of course, is best known for replacing Chris Mars in the Replacements for their final tour in 1991 after years spent gigging on the local Minneapolis music scene. Upon hearing word of his passing, I found myself revisiting a thought — a concept, if you will — that’s been vying for more space in my mind as of late.
My thought, of course, is that there’s really no less flattering sight than that of the aging rock ‘n’ roll musician. Now, before you respond with a sarcastic “boo-hoo,” hear me out. It’s one thing to show your age in a grey cubicle — as long as they make Dockers in your size, truth be told, you’re still good to go — but a rocker hitting his 40s is a whole ‘nother bag of hammers.
Rock ‘n’ roll’s very inception — or conception, if you will — was a reaction to the stodgy “grown-up” music of the day, and while its first real star, Bill Haley, was already pushing 30 (!) by the time “Rock Around the Clock” appeared in the closing credits of the film Blackboard Jungle and changed the face of popular music forever, rock ‘n’ roll still enjoyed an immediate and irrevocable connection to youth.
For teenagers in America who had long been stuck listening to the same music as their parents, rock ‘n’ roll was something they could call their own. Haley was a huge star, of course, but the proverbial elder statesman soon gave way to much younger idols with whom teenagers could more closely identify, including Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, and Ricky Nelson.
Presley, of course, is probably the best example of rock ‘n’ roll’s celebration of youth. After all, while talent surely had something to do with it, it was his youthful bravado and untamed sexuality that made him a star. He had the swagger of a young man who had no idea what he couldn’t do, and America’s teenagers loved every controversial shake of the hips and snarl of the lips. He, more than anyone, made sure that rock ‘n’ roll belonged to the young: he was young, the millions of adoring fans were young, and they saw something in each other that made for a beautiful relationship.
As he grew older, though, he lost touch with his audience and watched as bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones stole his thunder. His final days were spent as a tired Vegas act going through the motions, lost in a drug-induced haze and utterly alone in a world that, for the most part, had moved on from him years ago. He was 42.
Death, oddly enough, immortalized two versions of Presley: the overweight, jewel-studded jumpsuit-wearing Vegas showman and, more importantly, the young, cocky kid who could only be shown from the waist up during those early televised performances.
In subsequent years, we’ve all watched our favorite rock ‘n’ roll stars wage a war against time that none of them can win. Some are able to do so quite gracefully because their popularity was not so much tied to undiluted raw sexuality, as was the case with Presley. Others, of course, are stuck trying to shove themselves into ever-expanding pairs of leather pants in order to make themselves even remotely recognizable. There is nothing quite like an aging rock ‘n’ roll fan expressing shock at how much a certain rock star they once admired has “really let it go.” Do they not recognize that the very same could be said of them? Perish the thought.
Not every rock ‘n’ roll musician approaching middle age is trying to relive his or her glory days — some are still in search of them. They still write songs, play gigs, and dream of a day when their idea of success actually comes to some form of fruition. Some still lunge for the brass ring that is the “major label record deal,” but most have much more modest ambitions. Their grip on reality is a little more firm, but the fact remains that they find themselves with fewer and fewer peers, fewer believers, and, alas, fewer opportunities.
We all seem to know at least one guy who’s a little too old to still be chasing those rock ‘n’ roll dreams, don’t we? It’s sad, but funny at the same time. One need look no further than the movie The Rocker, starring Rainn Wilson from The Office, for confirmation of this. I, on the other hand, need look no further than the nearest mirror.
For guys like Steve Foley and me, whatever our motivations were for getting into rock ‘n’ roll when we were young enough not to know any better, it’s tough to realize that however many years you’ve spent playing in bands seems to have succeeded in only putting you that many years behind the rest of the world.
When we run into people we went to school with, they tell us about their wives, their kids, their mortgages. We tell them about our upcoming gig next Wednesday at some hole-in-the-wall that wasn’t there a year ago and won’t be there a year from now. Then we get into our piece-of-shit car and drive home to our dumpy apartment that we can barely afford, trying hard not to think about where we’ll be in five years, much less ten.
How many of us in this boat would jump ship for the opportunity to go back to that moment of our youth when we stood at the crossroads, and choose the straight path this time?
Oddly enough, not many. Sure, some of us end up working at Starbucks for the great benefits. Steve Foley, for that matter, was a used-car salesman. But regardless of what his W-2 might have said, he will be remembered by friends, family, and people he never even met for his love of and devotion to rock ‘n’ roll.
Rest in peace, Steve.
Here, in all its ageless glory, is Steve performing with the Replacements during their fateful final gig at Chicago’s Grant Park on July 4, 1991.
I Will Dare
Bent Out of Shape
Achin’ to Be
Merry Go Round
One Wink at a Time
Waitress in the Sky
When It Began
Someone Take the Wheel
Another Girl, Another Planet
Hey, Good Lookin’
I’ll Be You
I Don’t Know
Within Your Reach
Can’t Hardly Wait